Welcome, welcome to The Wars to Come, our Game of Thrones rewatch project for the now-Game of Thrones critical. We go back to a simpler time, when David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s (D&D) show was enjoyable for book snobs and Unsullied alike. This week we take on what is considered by some to be the peak with Season 1’s penultimate episode, “Baelor.” Kylie, Julia, Bo, and James are here to break it down, but first a recap for anyone who didn’t get chance to watch.
We pick up shortly after the events penned by GRRM himself in D&D’s first swing at a penultimate shock-fest!
First in Essos, it’s clear that the previously injured Khal Drogo is doing quite poorly with a festering wound. He cannot sit on top of his horse, and it’s clear his Khalasar is ready to abandon him, some of his bloodriders even saying that he is “no Khal at all.” Jorah tries to get Dany to flee before Drogo actually dies, since her pregnancy with his son would make her a target for any future Khal. However, she will not leave him! She demands that the “witch” from last week, Mirri Maz Duur, is brought to Drogo at once. Mirri Maz Duur says all she can do is ease Drogo’s passing, but when Dany presses her for a magical solution, she tells her “only death can pay for life.” This death begins with Drogo’s horse, apparently, which is brought to the tent for slaughter. Qotho tries to object, forcing Jorah to fight and kill him.
Dany leaves the tent, covered in blood, with the Dothraki almost all against her for this cursed magic. To make matters worse, the baby is now on its way! Since all the midwives are too superstitious to touch Dany now, Jorah is forced to carry her back inside to Mirri Maz Duur.
Over at The Wall, things are less bloody, though no less dramatic (at least, interpersonally). For saving Jeor Mormont from the wight, the Lord Commander gifts Jon his family’s Valyrian steel sword Longclaw, now with a wolf pommel. Yet Jon barely has a moment to take in his accomplishment before Sam tells him that he read a letter to Maester Aemon…about Robb calling the banners. Jon, newly conflicted for wanting to join and fight with his brother, is told about the difficulty of sacrificing love in the name of duty by the old maester. When Jon impatiently tells him that he can’t possibly understand, it’s revealed that he is actually Aemon Targaryen, and has certainly received news that tested him before.
Robb, meanwhile, seems to be doing pretty well even without his half-brother. He and his camp reached The Twins, controlled by House Frey, and are desperate to cross in order to reach King’s Landing in time to save Ned. It’s decided that Cat is the best person to treat with Walder Frey, a man who feels looked down upon by the High Lord’s of Westeros. She finally gets him to consent to their crossing, as long as both Arya and Robb marry a Frey.
Yet there’s another army they have to contend with: the Lannisters. Tywin announces in his tent that he plans to have the Mountain Clans in the vanguard for their soon-to-be clash with the Starks…meaning Tyrion is in the vanguard. Tyrion, assuming the worst, has Bronn find him a sex worker named Shae. She agrees to be his girlfriend-for-pay, and part of that includes playing never-have-I-ever with Tyrion and Bronn.
The next morning, the Stark forces arrive! Tyrion gives a rousing speech to the Mountain Clans, before promptly getting knocked out for the entirety of the battle. When he wakes, he’s amazed to still be alive. Though Bronn quickly informs him they only faced about 2,000 men. Where are the other 18,000?
Well, Robb had cleverly split the troops, as it turns out. He and his men snuck up on Jaime’s forces near Riverrun and managed to capture the Kingslayer himself! Jaime suggests Robb settle this whole dispute in single-combat against him, but Robb refuses, declaring that if they did that, Jaime would win. The Stark camp has new hope that Ned’s life is saved with this high-profile prisoner.
However, the story in King’s Landing is a bit different. Ned is ready to die, but Varys points out that with Cersei still holding Sansa. With his son raising an army, there is sure to be more bloodshed and death if Ned won’t “confess.” In order to protect those he cares about, Ned decides that he needs to swallow his honor and admit to his “treason.” In exchange, he’s told that Cersei will let him live out his days on The Wall with Jon.
He’s brought to the Sept of Baelor for the public announcement, with the Small Council, Cersei, and Sansa all next to him. Arya—currently scrounging for food on the streets—overhears the commotion and also attends, where she is spotted by Yoren, the Night’s Watch brother Ned had previously met. Things seem to go according to plan as Ned confesses, until King Joffrey calls for his head, because treason will “always go punished” during his reign. Despite the protests of Sansa and Cersei, the executioner kills Ned, while Yoren grabs Arya and drags her to safety.
Penultimate gasp indeed.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: Well, I knew for certain that we were back to D&D as writers this episode and I have to say…I think it was still pretty strong. The dialogue was clunkier compared to last week in places, no question, but I wasn’t feeling the show teetering on an edge like it had begun to feel in 1×06 or 1×07. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that most scenes were very plot-focused, and historically when D&D are interested in the plot, they do at least make attempts. But this definitely reminded me of why I was so engrossed with Game of Thrones as a whole for three good years.
Bo: The first time through, my opinion of the episode was always going to depend on Ned’s death scene. I honestly didn’t remember what else happened because I was so laser-focused on the show getting that scene right. And it’s still excellent as ever, but this time around I have a greater appreciation for everything around it. D&D dialogue definitely returned, but it didn’t detract from everything else. And they played it true where they really needed to. Fantastic episode.
Julia: Yeah, I have nothing very bad to say about this episode. All the feelings I had are ones I suspect I’m supposed to be having, “Walder Frey, gross! Poor Ned! Dany, what the fuck are you doing!” Tyrion had a few too many opportunities to talk, maybe.
James: It’s hard to believe this is the same show that has left me in a ball of nerdy rage time and time again. Apart from the odd slip up here and there, everything was on point. The execution scene in particular made this episode feel like a true adaptation of the source material.
Kylie: My highlight was Michelle Fairley’s face when Robb emerged from the Whispering Wood, because I was able to project the best internal monologue from the books onto her.
No really, even though they scrapped her material and make her take the backseat more and more, I think every nuance of this character came through in this episode. I’d still give a kidney to have seen Jennifer Ehle’s crack at the role, but I really have nothing but praise to say of Fairley here.
Shae is low-hanging fruit as the lowlight, but it is what it is. And yeah, she’s not heavily altered from the books, where I also found her pretty aggravating. But that scene just dragged on so damn long. On top of that, rewatching and knowing the Tysha story is just…the story of a sex worker Tywin and Jaime tricked Tyrion with really leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Julia: Omg, I think I’ve ranted for hours about how much I loath Shae. Her show counterpart is just as annoying, but probably in a different way. Also, how could they not find someone who could act? This is the first time I’ve found a GoT acting job lacking.
Okay, that’s not true. I might have picked the Aemon and Jon scene as my highlight if Kit Harington hadn’t been there. As it is, I can’t do anything but go with Kylie and agree that Cat’s time to shine was amazing.
James: Ooh, this is a tricky one. Jack Gleeson’s perfectly delivered, “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” and the generally fantastic acting of the execution scene almost won me over, but my highlight this week goes to the blood magic scene. Mirri Maz Duur (MMD)’s absolutely haunting singing is one of the creepiest moments out of the entire series. It makes the whole scene that much more thrilling, particularly when Jorah faces off with Qotho. While the demonic roars are a little too much sometimes, this scene captures what I love about the way Thrones does magic; show, don’t tell.
While I get the criticism regarding Shae, I found it fairly minor, all things considered. The only thing that really bothered me was Walder Frey’s dialogue. I love David Bradley’s performance (even if the other Frey actors were a little too pompous/upper-class for my liking), but lines like “Your mother would still be a milkmaid if I hadn’t squirted you into her belly,” are just a bit too cringe for me.
Bo: Considering the ending scene, I’m surprised I’m going to agree with Kylie here, but Michelle Fairley is far and away my highlight for this episode. She was absolutely incredible. Her barely contained disgust over Walder, her pity for his wife, the hesitancy about telling Robb her deal, and then that expression when Robb leaves the wood. She was incredible. This season is always at its best when the internal dialogue from the books plays across a character’s face, and that most certainly was the case with Cat.
I’m also agreeing about the Shae/Tyrion stuff. I swear I watched the episode and I’m not being lazy. It was just so…D&D. The sassy sex worker immediately acting like an idiot in front of the lord who bought her is their style to a tee. Also, could I possibly care less about Shae and Bronn to base a game of “never have I ever” around them? No. No, I could not possibly care less. It’s one of those scenes they write because they think they’re cleverer and funnier than they are.
And yeah, the Tysha story gives me all kinds of resentful emotions. YOU SET IT UP, WHY DID YOU ABANDON IT?
Julia: You can tell they’re trying to make Shae a “deeper” character too, here, with her refusal to talk about her parents and childhood, and all that. I’m conflicted, because the fact that book!Shae is more or less a blank canvas for Tyrion to project upon has always been a little problematic as a concept, but, like, making her interesting (or trying to…) is missing the point. That being said, one of the few things we do know about Shae is that her father sexually abused her, so… great adaptation.
Yeah, the “never have I ever” is certainly my lowlight.
James: Shae is a whole bundle of wtf, especially since GRRM loves Sibel Kekilli’s performance so much.
Julia: I am so confused by that. I guess it makes sense that he would feel disquite about his Shae being a bundle of nothing, but that performance?
Bo: Maybe his love for show Shae is a crack in the plaster for where the books are heading? Or he has a crush. It’s entirely possible.
Kylie: My guess, and I’m being very generous to our friend George down the block with this, is that he feels bad for having given Shae NO personality in the books at all. This Shae…she has a personality, whatever we may think of it. Though ultimately they betray their own scripting of her when they make still her follow Book!Shae’s plot beats in Season 4. We’ll get there. Still, perhaps GRRM just thinks that at least Kekilli’s Shae feels like an actual textured human?
Also a highborn. And if you question that, I’ll carve your eyes from your head.
Quality of writing
Bo: What few quibbles I have about the original dialogue injected into some moments are not nearly enough to actually complain about this episode’s writing. It is what it is and we know what it will eventually be. It’s a step down from last week, but just a small one because the scenes that needed to be well-written were all well-written.
James: I mean apart from the previously mentioned issues regarding Shae—which I don’t find that aggravating, compared to the crap D&D have been pulling in the last few seasons—this was a solid episode. Not much more I need to say.
Julia: “If we did it your way, you would win. [Pause.] We’re not going to do it your way.”
Kylie: It’s hard to explain why that is such a quintessential D&D example. They like…repeat phrases a lot. I’m thinking of Jaime and Tyrion’s “no no I’m the idiot” scene this past year. But I’m still standing by what I said about it mostly being strong.
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Kylie: It’s “sacrifice,” right? I really wanted it to be “love is the death of duty,” since that could have been a really neatly packaged thesis statement from Aemon, but I think sacrifice in and of itself is more precise. Robb sacrifices 2,000 men, Cat sacrifices Robb’s happiness (the lesser of the sacrifices here), Dany sacrifices a horse and ultimately her baby, and Ned sacrifices his external honor (again!).
It kind of leaves Tyrion’s scenes just hanging there, though they’re already tonally disjointed from the main drama from what I can tell.
Julia: One thing I liked was in the Aemon scene, he asked Jon if Ned would choose love or honor, and Jon said that Ned would always do “what was right.” And Aemon, and the audience too, I suppose, took that to mean he would choose honor. But the theme of Ned’s whole life, if you will, is challenging that very idea. That the “honorable thing” is the right thing.
And you can argue that it’s the theme of the episode. The line is clearest between Ned and Jon, since Ned’s situation is the direct catalyst for Jon’s crisis. And interestingly, it’s reversed, since I don’t think anyone could argue that Jon running off to fight with his brother is the right thing for him to do here. Dany chose love, and I was screaming at the screen that she was being a dumb-dumb, so clearly the answer isn’t as simple as “choosing love,” even if Ned did the right thing both times he did. I think so, anyway.
I guess you can also argue that Robb chose the right-wrong thing when he got into bed with the Freys, who are clearly gross pieces of shit that no one should want to associate with.
Bo: I agree with Julia here. I think sacrifice falls under the episode’s greater theme of the idea of choosing the right thing to do, and what exactly the right thing is. Ned has to choose the right thing to do between two awful choices (poor guy has a lot of practice there). Dany has to decide what the right thing is between two really terrible choices, too. Even Joffrey faces this choice when it’s time to decide Ned’s fate. Of course, he chooses terribly, as is his instinct.
James: Agreement with all of the above. The Aemon scene in particular felt like the strongest interplay between character and theme that the episode had to offer. This was a critical moment in Jon’s journey into becoming a man of the Night’s Watch not just in name, but in spirit too. Aemon’s line, “I will not tell you to stay or go. You must make that choice yourself, and live with it the rest of your days” emphasizes the difficulty Jon faces in letting go of his old life. Character moments have to be earned in order to work well, and Jon having to make such an important sacrifice was a really great way for the show to tie theme into character development.
Also, a round of applause to whoever decided to cast half of Aemon’s face in shadow. Nice little touch.
Kylie: I didn’t even notice that! But snaps to the director in general. Alan Taylor knows what he’s doing, even if he’s comfortable with plausible impossibilities on lucrative shows.
Cracks in the plaster (the bullshit to come)
Julia: It’s hard to get more cracked than Tyrion and Shae’s relationship. And the willingness to indulge for whole minutes in Tyrion and his drunk antics will lead right to him peer pressuring MissWorm in Meereen in season 6.
And I just want to scream about this a little bit: I know Arya was traumatized and probably doesn’t remember anything too well, but how could she see what we saw in front of the sept, with Sansa screaming and crying and fighting with everything she had, and think she was somehow complicit in Ned’s death?
Ugh, I’m so mad about it.
Bo: These past two episodes should expose the season 7 Winterhell plotline for the pure garbage it is. I don’t know how anyone can watch these episodes and think Arya has any point whatsoever. It stands on such shaky ground that not a single aspect of it can actually stand.
Tyrion and Shae aren’t just cracks in the plaster, they’re fist-shaped holes someone punched in the damn plaster. Shae is the proto-Talisa, the spunky woman who doesn’t follow any of the expected rules of society and acts entirely out of accordance with her expected role and yet suffers none of the drawbacks she should. Shae’s certainly not as out of place as Talisa, but she’s that first “successful” step D&D take towards what eventually became Robb’s wife.
James: Speaking of Robb, his reaction to Catelyn’s implication that the Frey girls aren’t very attractive seems like a stepping stone to the rampant sexism in season 5 and beyond. Showing his displeasure is fine, but being positioned to sympathise with it is kind of saying “poor Robb, he’s got to get married to an ugly girl.” Sacrifice is an interesting theme, but do you have to use female attractiveness as a measure of it?
Kylie: They’re starting in early with the “I don’t want a Frey girl” narrative so when his ~true love~ comes along I guess it’s more sympathetic? I really don’t know, but the less we talk about Talisa now, the happier I’ll be.
I’m sorry, this isn’t a crack at all because it makes sense, but seeing Jaime suggest single combat and Robb shooting it down and then knowing that they reenact that moment with Jon as Jaime and Ramsay as Robb is mind-boggling to me. Or further evidence towards my suspicion that they didn’t rewatch Season 1 until it came time to write Season 7.
Julia: The stuff with Sansa and Arya won’t be a problem until season 7, the scene as it was was adapted wonderfully. So was the scene with Walder Frey. God, he’s gross.
I have one major issue and one minor. The minor one is that I think the narrative was a little too sorry for Robb that he might not have a hot wife. Maybe. A little.
The big one is the dynamic between Tyrion and Shae. They got the explicit contract for the Girlfriend Experience down, but even in that context, it’s a little strange that she would feel comfortable telling her noble patron that she would cut his eyes out if he didn’t respect her privacy boundaries.
Bo: I’ve always thought this episode missed a huge opportunity with the Whispering Wood scene. How incredible would it have been to just have 10-20 seconds of Cat listening for the clashes of swords and shouts of the soldiers, with all those conflicting emotions playing across Michelle Fairley’s face, and then getting her reaction when Robb rides towards her? It might have been the best scene of the episode if done that way.
James: Shae’s a bit of a head-scratcher, but Bo made a point to me the other day about another GRRM-inspired book change. Pycelle’s dialogue at Ned’s execution was originally the High Septon’s, but GRRM decided they should give the lines to Pycelle, since they weren’t making the High Sparrow a speaking role yet so they could keep the story focused more. Which is fine—seeing a character the audience knows deliver a speech in a crucial story moment is far less confusing than some new person showing up to steal the spotlight, particularly in a visual medium.
But the thing is, Joffrey’s just talking about the High Septon, so having Pycelle say his lines is going to lead the audience to think that he’s the High Septon. Now it’s not a huge misstep, but coupled with the Shae shenanigans makes me wonder if GRRM didn’t fully think through the suggestions he made. Or maybe D&D mucked it up—I don’t know.
I’m actually quite happy with the cutting of the battle sequences. Game of Thrones battles tend to become the focus of the episodes featuring them, and shifting focus away from Ned’s execution would weaken the dramatic impact of one of the most important moments in the entire series.
Bo: Knocking Tyrion out was, is, and always will be a fantastic decision. It’s probably a better idea than A Game of Thrones having Tyrion succeeding on a battlefield.
Kylie: That always felt odd. I will say this is very clearly the beginnings of their more uh…interesting adaptational choices with Bronn. The plucky bawdiness is maybe at a 2 right now as opposed to the 11 it’s going to be, but still.
Tyrion: l forgot about everything but Tysha. And somehow l found myself in her bed.
Bronn: For three chickens, l should hope so.
I’m not sure we can comment on the Tysha-story-is-just-the-story yet as an adaptational choice, since I suspect D&D were considering keeping it the same as the books for a time. I mean, they awkwardly bring her up at least once a season until Season 4. Though it sure doesn’t paint “A girl who was almost raped doesn’t invite another man into her bed two hours later” in a great light.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: Well, Cersei had one line of dialogue this week, and it was “My son, this is madness.” There’s not a whole lot we can do with that, since in the books, Cersei did try to talk Joffrey out of the execution too. But then at the same time, Carol ends up taking a, “well he’s willful and I can’t control him and that makes me sad” stance by the Season 3 opener.
“The crowd roared, and Arya felt the statue of Baelor rock as they surged against it. The high Septon clutched at the king’s cape, and Varys came rushing over waving his arms, and even the queen was saying something to him, but Joffrey shook his head.” —A Game of Thrones
I liked the touch of Sansa and Cersei having matching hair? I’m sorry; I don’t have much to say about here this week. The Carol that was promised hasn’t fully ramped up yet.
Bo: She’ll arrive sooner than you hoped, unfortunately.
Julia: I’ll miss that wacky Centauri crest hair-do. By season 3 at the latest, the most creative they’ll get is Carol’s bun thing with the long bits at the bottom.
James: I’m with Kylie on this. Also, putting “Carol” into ASOIAF prophecies is something we should do more often.
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Bo: I thought they did a good job. They introduced the Freys, defined Walder’s grievances and all the jokes about his loyalty, and established the Tullys as his liege lord without dryly explaining it. They also gave us a nice history lesson about the Targaryens within Aemon’s speech. Though I have to ask if I’m the only one who thought Jon’s “you’re Aemon Targaryen!” was too much like Bran’s “that’s my father!”
I also have to wonder if people walked away from this episode thinking Pycelle was the High Septon, considering he gave the High Septon’s speech about merciful gods right after Joffrey all but introduced the High Septon.
Julia: That really bugs me and it never stops. He says the schpeel before Oberyn’s duel, too. But speaking roles are expensive. And it has been established that Pycelle is super, personally offended by treason for some reason, I guess. And I think General Veer’s painfully ponderous delivery gave the whole veneer of religiosity the eye-rolling treatment it deserved.
Bo: I suppose at this point they expected everyone knew who Pycelle was, but wouldn’t it have been smoother to just mention the High Septon was there without going full-on introducing the man right before Pycelle speaks? Considering the things changed in Game of Thrones in the name of avoiding confusion…
James: See my section on book adaptation regarding the Pycelle business, but I think the episode did a good job at making the exposition work the way it was needed for each scene. For Tyrion, it’s about building up his character so the audience knows more about him. Similar thing for Aemon, but it’s more for building drama. Peter Vaughan’s performance not only gives the audience chills, but sets the scene for the decision Jon must make between his old family and his new family. And as for Walder Frey…well, his little tidbits on House Tully’s disdain for him definitely helped build Walder’s general attitude of “piss off, I don’t care,” in my mind.
Kylie: Aemon’s exposition worked well too, even if it had one of the more plain bizarre adaptational decisions.
But yeah, things were good. Pycelle kind of serves as Mr. Exposition in a generalized sort of authority role throughout the series. D&D in general have never seemed much to care about what his function truly is, so this is just one of those cases. My best guess for cutting the High Septon is that maybe they thought it was going to be a meatier part in Season 2 based on A Clash of King events and didn’t want to shove in an extra?
It’s a small touch in the end, but one that would have helped with worldbuilding overall.
How was the pacing?
Julia: If I have nothing to say about the pacing, that usually means it’s good.
Kylie: I didn’t once think about it while watching the episode, which is also very good. The only draggy bit was never-have-I-ever, which we’ve discussed.
Bo: To prove I won’t blindly take Martin’s side over D&D’s, I thought this episode flowed from scene to scene better than last week’s. They did a great job introducing the next scene in the episode with the final moments of the previous one. I’d agree about Tyrion as well, but that’s a minor issue we wouldn’t know the full consequences of yet.
James: Agreed with all of the above. I also think cutting the battle sequences did a good job not just for making Ned’s execution more dramatic, but it makes the episode function much better. As Bo pointed out, the episode flows from scene to scene quite well, and throwing in two large battles would have mucked that up. And as “Mother’s Mercy” showed us, having multiple climaxes in various different locations can make your episode a little messy, which would have been a disaster for this episode in particular.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: It’s Tyrion having sex with a sex worker who is very clearly happy to be doing her job. Hooray!
James: I do like her line after Bronn wakes up Tyrion for battle though. Her apathy towards Tyrion’s possible demise does seem more in line with the Shae we see in the books, who’s lack of love for Tyrion plays into the complicated dynamics between Tyrion and Tywin.
Bo: I agree with that, James. I’m pretty sure that line was in the books? It’s a really good one that made clear where Shae stood and would always stand regarding the honesty of their relationship.
I found it very weird how they added in all that backstory during Tyrion’s lying game to suggest Shae is a perfectly well-adjusted woman suffering awful conditions as a camp follower because she enjoys it? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a happy existence as a sex worker and certainly nothing about the profession that requires you to have some tragic past to get into it. Still, if she’s so good at it and enjoys it so much, why not work in a brothel instead of courting risk following an army around? That’s not a happy life for anyone.
Thinking on it, I almost wonder if they should have replaced Shae with Ros.
Julia: But then who would Littlefinger monologue to?
In memoriam…Qotho and Ned Stark
Bo: Oh Ned.
Honestly, Game of Thrones never recovers from losing him. He leaves a void that they had no idea how to replace. At least he went out exactly like he needed to. My only complaint about his death scene is how everyone stops arguing with Joffrey long before the sword falls, but that’s a very petty complaint and not really a complaint at all.
James: I think there’s a case to be made that the void Ned left behind gave the other characters room to shine a little more. Doing away with the closest thing ASOIAF has to a “good guy” gave less conventional characters like the Hound and Tyrion to shine, even if it all goes to hell after season 4.
Kylie: I think the issue is that D&D begin failing to understand who their good guys and bad guys even are. Everyone just becomes these rather unpleasant, revenge-driven blahs, unless they’re the down-to-earth/straight-shootin’ swaggery bad boy type.
It’s hard not to focus entirely on Ned because of the enormity of how it feels, but we did also have Jorah beating Qotho in a duel, mostly because his arakh couldn’t pierce armor, which Jorah explained in an earlier episode to Rakharo. Obviously things get much, much worse later, but it plays into the “uninformed savages” portrayal. If only he had been full of worldly knowledge, like Jorah. It’s just a tone thing, but it’s not particularly attractive.
I don’t know, did this bother anyone else?
Julia: I don’t know, maybe Qotho is just that arrogant of a guy? He does seem like a bit of a jerk.
The more I think about the Behead Ned scene, the more I like it. I like especially the emphasis that was placed on Sansa and Ned making eye contact with each other. I can’t think of a death scene GoT will ever do better, that’s for sure.
Kylie: A high note of the series for sure, and a good note to end things here.
What did everyone else think? Are we too Shae-focused or was it that annoying? Did Ned’s death land for you? Is Robb an awesome action hero yet?
Then next week, we’ll close out Season 1 with the season long podcast soon following. We’ll see you then, in The Wars to Come.